x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Former prisoners bear witness to Bahrain's security operation

Detainees will receive compensation, says Bahrain's King Hamad.

Anti-government protesters run from tear gas on Tuesday, during clashes with riot police in the Shiite Muslim village of Jidhafs, on the outskirts of Manama.
Anti-government protesters run from tear gas on Tuesday, during clashes with riot police in the Shiite Muslim village of Jidhafs, on the outskirts of Manama.

MANAMA // Bahrain's king this week dismissed charges against some people detained during crackdowns against pro-democracy protests and allowed compensation to prisoners abused by security forces.

But as more Bahrainis have been released from prison in recent weeks, a clearer picture has emerged about the conditions in which they were held and the treatment handed out by members of the security forces. One piece of grainy video footage posted on YouTube shows two men scrambling to get away, as several police jeeps follow them along a dusty Bahraini village street.

Policemen can be seen hanging out of the vehicles, weapons pointed towards the fleeing men as shots ring out and both fall to the ground, before the jeeps drive off.

The scene is just one of many posted online from the height of the government's security operation in March. Like many of those wounded during the violence that ensued, one of the young men seen on the video was treated in hospital for serious injuries after he was hit at close range with birdshot.

Several days after Bahraini security forces took over the hospital where he was being treated, he disappeared, leaving his family fearing the worst.

That man was Mohammed, the only name he was prepared to give when The National tracked him down. After he was shot, he says, he was taken to a military hospital, where he was beaten as he lay blindfolded and tethered by his hands and feet to a hospital bed for more than three weeks.

Mohammed, in his twenties, remained in detention for the next four months, moving between hospitals and prison medical and detention facilities.

He is just one of many who speak of arbitrary detention, physical mistreatment and lack of access to legal representation or their families. Others say the screams of other prisoners or threats were as close as they came to torture. There have also been reports that jail conditions improved recently.

The Bahraini government has released scores of prisoners in the past month, including some high-profile figures such as Matar Matar, a former MP and senior figure within Al Wefaq, the country's main opposition group. Also among those released was Ayat Al Gormezi, 20, who was arrested after she read an anti-regime poem at a rally in March. Ms Al Gormezi has said she was severely beaten during her time in prison.

In a speech on Sunday, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa said that Bahrain's Supreme Court would oversee compensation payments for victims of abuse or for families of those killed during unrest, including security forces.

The recently set-up Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry - a fact-finding body charged with investigating human-rights violations since the crisis in Bahrain broke out in February - has so far facilitated the release of at least 157 detainees.

However, it is still not clear exactly how many people linked to the protest movement remain in jail. The Bahraini government has not responded to queries on the issue, but local human-rights activists estimate that there are still between 500 and 600 people tied to the protests in jail.

On Tuesday, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called for the release of all prisoners detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression. The rights body also called on the Bahraini government to release the names of all of those arrested since March 15.

For those who have been released, the commission is in the process of investigating reports of mistreatment and torture, with forensic medical experts expected to help with the inquiry.

Mohammed's family says he has already submitted to investigators his account of what happened to him after he was shot by police in March.

Speaking recently to The National, Mohammed recalled how he left his house to go to the supermarket, when he was caught up in a large gathering that turned into a confrontation with security forces.

Lifting his T-shirt, he showed that his back was still dotted with scars left by the birdshot. Around 150 of the small metal pellets remain lodged in his body. A long scar where he had emergency surgery has left his stomach distended and misshapen. He said he was even hit on his wound while in hospital.

"Whenever I said anything they would beat me," Mohammed recalled. "When I said: 'Where am I? Where are you taking me?' they beat me."

Mohammed recalls instances when a nurse tried to make him more comfortable, but that was the exception. "All the time I was expecting hitting and I was always tense. They also insulted and humiliated me, telling me I wasn't Bahraini, I was Iranian," he said.

Meanwhile, Mohammed's family searched for him. "For three months we didn't hear anything about him," said one of his brothers. "We went to hospitals, to the police stations. No one gave us anything … We got to a point where we had no hope of seeing him again and thought maybe he had died."

Finally at the beginning of June, he was allowed to call his family, who were later given permission to visit him on four occasions. Then, at the end of July, Mohammed was released and this month was cleared on charges of participating in an illegal gathering.

His family now says he is in need of rehabilitation and further treatment, for which they are trying to gather funds.

However, while the number of arrests appears to have declined in recent weeks and Mohammed and other detainees are being released, security forces continue to use force in mainly Shiite neighbourhoods, according to human-rights activists.

Late last month, a 27-year-old man said he was picked up in the village of Deih, taken to a police station and physically assaulted.

Lying on his hospital bed the following day, the man could hardly speak - his jaw had been broken in at least three places. He had broken bones in both his arms and several broken ribs.

His twin brother hovered over the bed, deciphering what he was saying: that he was picked up by police, beaten, urinated and spat on, before he was dumped on the side of a road two hours later.

 

zconstantine@thenational.ae